Krugman’s blog, 4/21/14

April 22, 2014

There were five posts yesterday.  The first was “Class, Oligarchy, and the Limits of Cynicism:”

A recent paper (pdf) by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page is getting a lot of attention, and deservedly so. Gilens and Page look at a number of issues over the past 30+ years where polling data let us identify public policy preferences, which can be compared with elite and interest-group preferences. And what they find is that politicians don’t seem to care very much about what the public thinks: when elite preferences and popular preferences are different, the elite almost always wins.

This is an important insight — and it gains special force these days, when the elite’s views not only favor the elite versus the rest (duh) but have also been systematically wrong, on issues from invading Iraq to giving deficits a higher priority than jobs.

But there is a danger here of going too far, and imagining that electoral politics is irrelevant. Why bother getting involved in campaigns, when the oligarchy rules whichever party is in power?

So it’s worth pointing out it does make a difference. Yes, Democrats pay a lot of attention to plutocrats, and even make a point of inviting Patrimonial Capitalism: The Next Generation to White House galas (I would have missed that, even though it’s in my own paper, but for Kathleen Geier. Thanks!). But it’s quite wrong to say that the parties’ behavior in office is the same. As Floyd Norris points out, Obama has in fact significantly raised taxes on very high incomes, largely through special surcharges included in the Affordable Care Act; and what the Act does with the extra revenue is expand Medicaid and provide subsidies on the exchanges, both means-tested programs whose beneficiaries tend to be mainly lower-income adults. The net effect will be significant losses for the super-elite — not crippling losses, to be sure, and hardly anything that will affect their elite status — and major gains to tens of millions of less fortunate Americans.

If you’re waiting for a revolution, or even a new New Deal, this may seem disappointing. But it matters a lot all the same.

Yesterday’s second post was “No Time For Sargent:”

I’m a little late to this, but there’s lately been some buzz about the unearthing of Tom Sargent’s 2007 graduation speech, in which he briefly laid out 12 principles of economics. For the most part the speech is getting favorable attention. So let me be a spoilsport. It’s not so much that what Sargent said is wrong, although some of his principles are by no means universally agreed upon, even in normal times. What’s so striking about Sargent’s points is that it’s hard to think of a worse time to cite them. And the people citing that old speech clearly have ulterior motives.

So, about the not so time-dependent points: Sargent declared as a principle, “There are tradeoffs between equality and efficiency.” Well, every economist would agree that Cuban-type equality is bad for efficiency. But would reducing our current level of inequality reduce efficiency? That’s far from clear: there are a number of reasons to believe that high levels of inequality have adverse effects on economic growth – and evidence to that effect is coming not from fringe leftists but from places like the IMF.

The main point, however, is that Sargent’s principles aren’t actually immutable truths; they’re statements about a fairly efficient market economy not too far from full employment. Even leaving general issues of market failure aside, they seem remarkably off-point in an economy still suffering from high unemployment and excess desired savings (as evidenced by the fact that interest rates are at the zero lower bound).

So when Sargent reminds us that communities face trade-offs, that’s much less clear at a time when the community is not at all like an individual – in which there are substantial amounts of unemployed resources, and putting those resources to work would be pure gain, not a tradeoff. And then he tells us this:

When a government spends, its citizens eventually pay, either today or tomorrow, either through explicit taxes or implicit ones like inflation.

There are very good reasons to believe that this is just wrong under current conditions. There’s overwhelming evidence that in an economy against the zero lower bound government spending has a large, positive multiplier, so the goods the government buys don’t come at the expense of other consumption or investment; and there’s a reasonable argument to the effect that even in purely fiscal terms spending more than pays for itself.

Now, when Sargent gave that speech – before the financial crisis – he could reasonably have imagined that conditions under which his eternal truths weren’t true would be rare. But at this point we’ve been against the zero lower bound for more than five years, and we’re talking seriously about the possibility that depression-like conditions are the new normal.

So why the sudden attention to Sargent’s 2007 speech? I think it’s fairly obvious: it’s essentially stealth anti-Keynesian propaganda, cloaked in the form of a widely respected and liked economist uttering what sound like eternal truths. But they aren’t, and the real goal here is to undermine the case for fighting unemployment in the here and now. There are virtues to that 2007 talk, but right now is no time for 2007 Sargent.

The third post yesterday was “The Economy is Not Like a Household:”

I dashed off my Sargent comment in the few minutes before class, which meant that it was longer and more complicated than it should have been. So I want to come back to what I think is the most important point. In his speech, Sargent went right away to this:

2. Individuals and communities face trade-offs.

At one level this is, of course, true. But left there without further elaboration, it is deeply misleading — especially right now. For the essence of what’s happening now — the key to understanding the mess we’re in — is that sometimes the economy is not like a household, that our individual choices sometimes lead to outcomes that are in nobody’s interest.

In particular, when you have economy-wide deleveraging — when everyone is trying to spend less than his or her income, so as to pay down debt — you have a fundamental adding-up problem. My spending is your income, and your spending is my income, so if both of us try to spend less at the same time, what we end up achieving is mutual impoverishment.

Ah, you say, but the price mechanism will take care of that. Indeed: in normal times interest rates rise or fall to match desired spending to the economy’s productive capacity. But what if the interest rate needed to achieve this outcome is negative? Well, that can’t happen — so when the deleveraging shock is big enough, the economy goes into a depression.

And that’s the world we’re in! I know that many people just hate it when economists talk about liquidity traps — it all sounds like mumbo-jumbo to them — but the zero lower bound isn’t hypothetical, it’s staring us in the face.

And if you want to insist that some other kind of flexibility would save us if only markets were perfect and pure enough, tell me how. A fall in the overall price level would do nothing to raise real incomes, but it would increase real debt, increasing the pressure to deleverage. If for some reason wages were to fall while prices didn’t, it would reduce real wages — but firms would have less, not more, incentive to hire workers, because their real sales would fall too. And so on down the line.

I’m going on too long again, so let’s just come back to the key point: the reason we’re in the state we’re in is precisely the fact that the community doesn’t face the same kinds of tradeoffs that face individuals. Highlighting supposed words of wisdom that suggest the opposite is a big step backward.

The fourth post yesterday was “There Goes the Sun:”

Like just about everyone who has looked at the numbers on renewable energy, solar power in particular, I was wowed by the progress. Something really good is in reach.

And so, inevitably, the usual suspects are trying to kill it.

For the Kochs, it’s partly a matter of financial interest. But for the conservative movement in general, Kevin Drum has it right: it’s all about tribalism. Liberals like solar power, so we’re against it. Or as Drum says,

We’ve now entered an era in which affinity politics has gotten so toxic that even motherhood and apple pie are fair targets if it turns out that liberals happen to like apple pie.

What makes it even worse is that one (not the only) reason to like the solar revolution is that it helps fight climate change. So if you’re a card-carrying conservative, who believes that climate change is the biggest, most intricate, and most incredibly successful conspiracy in history — thousands of scientists around the world, and not one of them squealing! — you want to block solar even if it saves money.

To reuse an old line from Brad DeLong, at this point right-wing paranoia is worse than you can possibly imagine, even if you take into account the fact that it’s worse than you can possibly imagine.

Yesterday’s last post was “ECO 348, The Great Recession: Long-Run Fiscal Prospects:”

Slides here (pdf). I thought it would be unfair to the students not to give them a bit of color at the end.

Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

April 22, 2014

Bobo has extruded a thing called “The Leadership Emotions” in which he gurgles that political leaders have come to rely primarily on consultants’ carefully crafted, poll-based political advice, which can obscure the moral impulses necessary for leadership.  Every time he uses any phrase that includes the word “moral” I break out in hives…  Mr. Nocera has a question in “The Real Port Authority Scandal:”  Should we be financing empty office space in a half-filled building or upkeep on our roads and bridges?  Mr. Bruni, in “Autism and the Agitator,” says Jenny McCarthy got a crazy amount of traction. She shouldn’t get a whitewash.  Here’s Bobo:

Throughout American history, most presidents had small personal staffs. They steered through political waters as amateurs, relying on experience, instinct and conversations with friends.

Then candidates and presidents hired professionals to help them navigate public opinion. By the time Theodore White began his “Making of the President” series in 1960, the strategists, who had once been hidden, came into view. Every successive administration has taken power away from cabinet agencies and centralized more of it with those political professionals who control messaging from within the White House.

This trend is not just in politics. We have become a consultant society. Whether you are running a business or packaging yourself for a job or college admissions, people rely on the expertise of professional advice-givers.

The rise of professional strategists has changed the mental climate of the time, especially in the realm of politics. Technical advisers are hired to be shrewd. Under their influence the distinction between campaigning and governing has faded away. Most important, certain faculties that were central to amateur decision making — experience, intuition, affection, moral sentiments, imagination and genuineness — have been shorn down for those traits that we associate with professional tactics and strategy — public opinion analysis, message control, media management and self-conscious positioning.

A nice illustration of this shift came in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine in the form of Jo Becker’s book adaptation, “How the President Got to ‘I Do’ on Same-Sex Marriage.” It is the inside story of how the president’s advisers shifted the White House position on gay marriage, from one the president didn’t really believe in — opposition to same-sex unions — to one he did.

Not long ago, readers would have been shocked to see how openly everyone now talks about maneuvering a 180-degree turn on a major civil rights issue. It would have been embarrassing to acknowledge that you were running your moral convictions through the political process, arranging stagecraft. People might have maneuvered on moral matters, but they weren’t so unabashed about it.

Today we’re all in on the game. The question is whether it is played well.

There were two sorts of strategists described in Becker’s piece. One group, including the former Republican Party leader Ken Mehlman, has ardent supporters of same-sex marriage who tried to craft the right messaging. Mehlman told Obama to talk about his daughters when he announced his new position.

The other strategists were in charge of the president’s political prospects. Under their influence, the substance of the issue was submerged under the calculus of coalition management: who would be pleased and displeased by a shift. As usual, these strategists were overly timid, afraid of public backlash from this or that demographic.

Becker describes a process in which there were strategy sessions but no conclusion. The strategists were good at trivial things, like picking a TV interviewer for the scripted announcement, but they were not good at propelling a decision. “This was so past the sell-by date,” one senior administration official told Becker, “yet there was still no real plan in place. It just shows you how scared everyone was of this issue.”

The person who finally got the administration to move just went with his heart. Vice President Joe Biden met the children of a gay couple and blurted out that same-sex marriage is only fair. He went on “Meet the Press” and said the same thing.

Biden violated every strategist rule. He got ahead of the White House message. He was unscripted. He went with his moral sense. But his comments shifted the policy. The president was compelled to catch up.

Edmund Burke once wrote, “The true lawgiver ought to have a heart full of sensibility. He ought to love and respect his kind, and to fear himself.” Burke was emphasizing that leadership is a passionate activity. It begins with a warm gratitude toward that which you have inherited and a fervent wish to steward it well. It is propelled by an ardent moral imagination, a vision of a good society that can’t be realized in one lifetime. It is informed by seasoned affections, a love of the way certain people concretely are and a desire to give all a chance to live at their highest level.

This kind of leader is warm-blooded and leads with full humanity. In every White House, and in many private offices, there seems to be a tug of war between those who want to express this messy amateur humanism and those calculators who emphasize message discipline, preventing leaks and maximum control. In most of the offices, there’s a fear of natural messiness, a fear of uncertainty, a distrust of that which is not scientific. The calculators are given too much control.

The leadership emotions, which should propel things, get amputated. The shrewd tacticians end up timidly and defensively running the expedition.

Ah…  It’s been a while since he dragged up the specter of Edmund Burke…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

This is a column about the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, but you won’t read a word in here about the lane-closing scandal in Fort Lee, N.J. This is about another scandal, one that has been going for on so long that people don’t even think of it as scandalous. Indeed, it involves no illegality whatsoever. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a scandal.

The Port Authority is supposed to manage — and improve — important parts of the transportation infrastructure of New York and New Jersey: airports like John F. Kennedy Airport, bridges like the George Washington Bridge, and terminals like the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

And, in fact, all of these need improving, especially the bus terminal, which is 64 years old and thoroughly outmoded. The steep $13 toll that drivers pay to cross the George Washington Bridge, for instance, is supposed to help pay for infrastructure improvements.

For decades, however, at least some of that money has been diverted to real estate — specifically, the World Trade Center, which the Port Authority originally built in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and then subsidized for the next several decades, as the Twin Towers languished under its stewardship. It finally exited the business in the summer of 2001, by signing a 99-year lease with Larry Silverstein, the developer.

Which, of course, was only weeks before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. Since then, the Port Authority has dived back into real estate, pouring at least $7.7 billion rebuilding the area around Ground Zero. Some of that money went for the 9/11 memorial and museum. But some $4 billion went to an over-the-top PATH station. And another $3.3 billion has gone to build One World Trade Center — which used to be known as Freedom Tower, and, at a symbolic 1,776 feet high, is now the tallest building in the country.

Whether or not building commercial skyscrapers was the right way to rebuild Ground Zero, what can be said for sure is that the Port Authority has shown, yet again, that it doesn’t belong in the real estate business. One World Trade Center is the most expensive high-rise building ever built in America, and it is costing the Port Authority a fortune. Only 55 percent of its 2.6 million square feet has been leased, and most of that is at a significant loss. Meanwhile, 4 World Trade Center, which was developed by Silverstein, has only 60 percent of its space leased. As The Wall Street Journal pointed out recently, between the two buildings, there is more than 2.5 million square feet of unleased space at Ground Zero.

So why in the world would the Port Authority be willing to back another $1.2 billion in loans to help Silverstein build 3 World Trade Center? Yet on Wednesday, that is exactly what the Port Authority board is supposed to vote on.

Silverstein needs the loan guarantee for a simple reason: The market is saying that, with all that empty office space, this is not the time to be building another skyscraper downtown. He has, so far, found one tenant, but banks are insisting that a higher percentage of the building be preleased before the construction of the building will get financing. So Silverstein has turned to the Port Authority instead to be his funder of last resort.

And not all that long ago, it would have been a safe bet that the Port Authority would have gone along. Indeed, the vice chairman of the board, Scott Rechler — a realtor himself — has said that “it’s part of our mission to finish it.”

But this time, somebody on the board has finally stood up and said, “Enough.” That person is Kenneth Lipper, an investment banker and a former deputy mayor of New York, who was appointed to the Port Authority board last year by Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York.

“There is simply no reason for the Port Authority to step in,” he told me on Monday. “The private sector is appropriately saying, ‘Not now.’ ” But he also had another objection, one that heralds back to the original purpose of the Port Authority. “Our role is to develop the transportation infrastructure of this region. We have more infrastructure needs than we can finance through our revenue base. As a result, we are triaging necessary transportation improvements to finance what will be an empty building.”

Always in the past, the commissioners have voted unanimously to approve ventures like the Silverstein deal; it was the way things worked at the Port Authority. That’s one reason these expenditures have seemed less outrageous than they really are: there was no opposition. This time, however, there is going to be an actual debate. And if, after that, Silverstein gets his loan guarantees, well, there will finally be no doubt that a scandal has taken place.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

What do you call someone who sows misinformation, stokes fear, abets behavior that endangers people’s health, extracts enormous visibility from doing so and then says the equivalent of “Who? Me?”

I’m not aware of any common noun for a bad actor of this sort. But there’s a proper noun: Jenny McCarthy.

For much of the past decade, McCarthy has been the panicked face and intemperate voice of a movement that posits a link between autism and childhood vaccinations and that badmouths vaccines in general, saying that they have toxins in them and that children get too many of them at once.

Because she posed nude for Playboy, dated Jim Carrey and is blond and bellicose, she has received platforms for this message that her fellow nonsense peddlers might not have. She has spread the twisted word more efficiently than the rest.

And then, earlier this month, she said the craziest thing of all, in a column for The Chicago Sun-Times.

“I am not ‘anti-vaccine,’ ” she wrote, going on to add, “For years, I have repeatedly stated that I am, in fact, ‘pro-vaccine’ and for years I have been wrongly branded.”

You can call this revisionism. Or you can call it “a complete and utter lie,” as the writer Michael Specter said to me. Specter’s 2009 book, “Denialism,” looks at irrational retorts to proven science like McCarthy’s long and undeniable campaign against vaccines.

McCarthy waded into the subject after her son, Evan, was given a diagnosis of autism in 2005. She was initially motivated, it seems, by heartache and genuine concern.

She proceeded to hysteria and wild hypothesis. She got traction, and pressed on and on.

In 2007, she was invited on “Oprah” and said that when she took Evan to the doctor for the combined measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, she had “a very bad feeling” about what she recklessly termed “the autism shot.” She added that after the vaccination, “Boom! Soul, gone from his eyes.”

In an online Q. and A. after the show, she wrote: “If I had another child, I would not vaccinate.”

She also appeared on CNN in 2007 and said that when concerned pregnant women asked her what to do, “I am surely not going to tell anyone to vaccinate.”

Two years later, in Time magazine, she said, “If you ask a parent of an autistic child if they want the measles or the autism, we will stand in line for the measles.” I’ve deleted the expletive she used before the second “measles.”

And on The Huffington Post a year after that, she responded to experts who insisted that vaccines didn’t cause autism and were crucial to public health with this declaration: “That’s a lie, and we’re sick of it.”

I don’t know how she can claim a pro-vaccine record. But I know why she’d want to.

Over the last few years, measles outbreaks linked to parents’ refusals to vaccinate children have been laid at McCarthy’s feet. The British study that opponents like her long cited has been revealed as fraudulent. And she and her tribe have gone from seeming like pitifully misguided dissidents to indefatigably senseless quacks, a changed climate and mood suggested by what happened last month when she asked her Twitter followers to name “the most important personality trait” in a mate. She got a bevy of blistering responses along the lines of “someone who vaccinates” and “critical thinking skills.”

Seth Mnookin, the author of the 2011 book “The Panic Virus,” which explores and explodes the myth that vaccines cause autism, noted that McCarthy had a relatively new gig on ABC’s “The View” that could be jeopardized by continued fearmongering. What once raised her profile, he said, could now cut her down.

As she does her convenient pivot, the rest of us should look at questions raised by her misadventures.

When did it become O.K. to present gut feelings like hers as something in legitimate competition with real science? That’s what interviewers who gave her airtime did, also letting her tell the tale of supposedly curing Evan’s autism with a combination of her “Mommy instinct” and a gluten-free diet, and I’d love to know how they justify it.

Are the eyeballs drawn by someone like McCarthy more compelling than public health and truth? Her exposure proves how readily television bookers and much of the news media will let famous people or pretty people or (best of all!) people who are both famous and pretty hold forth on subjects to which they bring no actual expertise. Whether the topic is autism or presidential politics, celebrity trumps authority and obviates erudition.

There’s also this: How much time did physicians and public officials waste trying to neutralize the junk in which McCarthy trafficked? As Fred Volkmar, a professor at Yale University’s medical school, said to me, “It diverts people from what’s really important, which is to focus on the science of really helping kids with autism.”

Krugman’s blog, 4/20/14

April 21, 2014

There was one post yesterday, “Further Notes on Sweden:”

I’m still thinking about Sweden’s slide into deflation, which actually offers several lessons relevant to the rest of us.

First, it’s an object lesson in the power of sadomonetarism, the desire of many monetary officials to raise interest rates because, well, because. Look at Swedish macro data over the relevant period:

In 2010 Sweden had high unemployment and low inflation; Econ 101 level macro should have said that this was no time to raise rates. Yet the Riksbank went ahead and did so anyway. Why?

It now says that it was all about financial stability, about fears of excessive house prices and borrowing. But that’s not what it was saying at the time! The bank’s governor did a chat in December 2010 in which he declared that it was about inflation:

If the interest rate isn’t raised now, we’ll run the risk of too much inflation further ahead. This wouldn’t be good for the economy. Our most important task is to ensure that we meet our inflation target of 2%.

Strange to say, however, when inflation started coming in well below the target, the Riksbank just kept raising rates, and switched to the financial stability justification.

Second, Sweden’s experience helps shed light on a historical controversy over US policy. There is a substantial contingent of Fed critics who insist that the whole bubble-bust cycle of the last decade was the Fed’s fault, that it kept interest rates too low for too long. If you think about it, however, the Fed circa 2003-2004 was facing a situation very similar to that of the Riksbank in 2010: unemployment still high but coming down, inflation low, and housing prices rising:

So what those critics are saying is that the Fed — which was worried about inflation at the time — should have done what the Riksbank did. Looking at Sweden, are you still sure about that?

Finally, the Swedish saga is a stark illustration of the limits of intellectual influence. At the time policy was going off the rails, Lars Svensson — one of the world’s leading macroeconomists, and specifically an expert in deflation risks and liquidity traps — was a deputy governor at the Riksbank. He protested vigorously at the turn policy was taking — and was completely frozen out by colleagues who were sure they knew better. And note that this wasn’t a case of his colleagues clinging to economic orthodoxy while he was proposing radical new ideas; he was the one making basic Econ 101-type arguments, while they were inventing new rationales for tightening on the fly.

Actually, I think the Fed is better — it is, at least for now, something of a haven for academic influence. But you do wonder what might have happened at the Fed if Romney had won in 2012, and Paul Ryan had had de facto veto power over Bernanke’s successor.

Krugman, solo

April 21, 2014

In “Sweden Turns Japanese” Prof. Krugman says the sadomonetarists, with their gut dislike of low interest rates, have claimed another victim.  Here he is:

Three years ago Sweden was widely regarded as a role model in how to deal with a global crisis. The nation’s exports were hit hard by slumping world trade but snapped back; its well-regulated banks rode out the financial storm; its strong social insurance programs supported consumer demand; and unlike much of Europe, it still had its own currency, giving it much-needed flexibility. By mid-2010 output was surging, and unemployment was falling fast. Sweden, declared The Washington Post, was “the rock star of the recovery.”

Then the sadomonetarists moved in.

The story so far: In 2010 Sweden’s economy was doing much better than those of most other advanced countries. But unemployment was still high, and inflation was low. Nonetheless, the Riksbank — Sweden’s equivalent of the Federal Reserve — decided to start raising interest rates.

There was some dissent within the Riksbank over this decision. Lars Svensson, a deputy governor at the time — and a former Princeton colleague of mine — vociferously opposed the rate hikes. Mr. Svensson, one of the world’s leading experts on Japanese-style deflationary traps, warned that raising interest rates in a still-depressed economy put Sweden at risk of a similar outcome. But he found himself isolated, and left the Riksbank in 2013.

Sure enough, Swedish unemployment stopped falling soon after the rate hikes began. Deflation took a little longer, but it eventually arrived. The rock star of the recovery has turned itself into Japan.

So why did the Riksbank make such a terrible mistake? That’s a hard question to answer, because officials changed their story over time. At first the bank’s governor declared that it was all about heading off inflation: “If the interest rate isn’t raised now, we’ll run the risk of too much inflation further ahead … Our most important task is to ensure that we meet our inflation target of 2 percent.” But as inflation slid toward zero, falling ever further below that supposedly crucial target, the Riksbank offered a new rationale: tight money was about curbing a housing bubble, to avert financial instability. That is, as the situation changed, officials invented new rationales for an unchanging policy.

In short, this was a classic case of sadomonetarism in action.

I’m using that term (coined by William Keegan of The Observer) advisedly, not just to be colorful. At least as I define it, sadomonetarism is an attitude, common among monetary officials and commentators, that involves a visceral dislike for low interest rates and easy money, even when unemployment is high and inflation is low. You find many sadomonetarists at international organizations; in the United States they tend to dwell on Wall Street or in right-leaning economics departments. They don’t, I’m happy to say, exert much influence at the Federal Reserve — but they do constantly harass the Fed, demanding that it stop its efforts to boost employment.

And when I say that the dislike for low rates is visceral, I mean just that. While sadomonetarists may offer what sound like coherent analytical rationales for their policy views, they don’t change their policy views in response to changing conditions — they just invent new rationales. This strongly suggests that what we’re looking at here is a gut feeling rather than a thought-out position.

Indeed, the Riksbank’s evolving justifications for rate hikes were mirrored at international organizations like the Switzerland-based Bank for International Settlements, an influential bankers’ bank that is a sadomonetarist stronghold. Just like the Riksbank, the bank changed its rationale for rate hikes — It’s about inflation! It’s about financial stability! — but never its policy demands.

Where does this gut dislike for low rates come from? At some level it has to reflect an instinctive identification with the interests of wealthy creditors as opposed to usually poorer debtors. But it’s also driven, I believe, by the desire of many monetary officials to pose as serious, tough-minded people — and to demonstrate how tough they are by inflicting pain.

Whatever their motives, sadomonetarists have already done a lot of damage. In Sweden they have extracted defeat from the jaws of victory, turning an economic success story into a tale of stagnation and deflation as far as the eye can see.

And they could do much more damage in the future. Financial markets have been fairly calm lately — no big banking crises, no imminent threats of euro breakup. But it would be wrong and dangerous to assume that recovery is assured: bad policies could all too easily undermine our still-sluggish economic progress. So when serious-sounding men in dark suits tell you that it’s time to stop all this easy money and raise rates, beware: Look at what such people have done to Sweden.

Krugman’s blog, 4/19/14

April 20, 2014

There were three posts yesterday.  The first was “European Debt Deflation:”

As I noted yesterday, Sweden is now experiencing deflation, which is bad for a number of reasons — including the fact that household debt is very high, and deflation (or even low inflation) increases the burden of that debt. (This makes it even more ironic that the Riksbank’s justification for ignoring Econ 101 and raising rates in a depressed economy was concern about excessive household debt and financial stability.) Lars Svensson, who has been a prophet without honor throughout, offers more.

The thing is, this is a problem throughout Europe. You sometimes hear defenders of the ECB declaring that low overall inflation isn’t a problem, because it’s mainly caused by very low inflation or deflation in debtor countries that are in the process of adjusting. This is 180 degrees wrong: low inflation is a much bigger problem than the aggregate number suggests, precisely because it’s concentrated in debtor nations, and is therefore imposing a bigger burden on debtors than the overall number reveals.

Here’s a quick and dirty version. I’ve taken the sum of public debt as % of GDP and household debt as % of income, both from OECD factbook — I should do a more careful number, but this is probably good enough for a first pass — and compared it with core inflation in the year ending last month, from Eurostat. (Sorry, don’t have software for country labels accessible right now.) The picture, for euro area countries, looks like this:

First of all, almost nobody has inflation running at the ECB’s “close to but less than 2%” target; second, on average, countries with large debt burdens are experiencing especially low inflation or even deflation. This is not an accident: during the euro bubble, capital flooded into some countries fueling debt expansion, and these are precisely the countries being forced into internal devaluation via deflation now.

The result is that even though the euro area doesn’t have outright deflation (yet), it’s very much experiencing Fisherian debt deflation already.

The second post yesterday was “My Head Talks Piketty With Bill Moyers:”

By the way, the man himself pronounces it pick a TEA.

The last post yesterday was “Obamacare Versus The Wusses:”

One of the odd rituals of American punditry — the most famous example is Karl Rove’s tantrum in 2012, but it happens all the time — is the way pundits and operatives keep spinning after the polls have closed. Never mind the vote totals, and let’s dispute the network projections; my guy is still winning!

The obvious question is, what’s the point? The votes are already in; you can’t build momentum, or attract more donations, or any of those other things that claims of imminent victory might do. Wouldn’t election night be a good time to adopt the persona of hard-headed realist, not delusional wishful thinker? Yet this hardly ever happens.

Something like this is going on with Obamacare. Not a day goes by without some prominent Republican politician or pundit insisting that the enrollment numbers are phony, that more people are losing insurance than gaining it, etc.. I know that’s what the base believes, because it’s what they hear from Rush and Fox. But you would think that important people would have someone around who has a clue, who knows that enrollment data and multiple surveys are all telling the same story of unexpected success. OK, maybe not — if famous senators don’t have anyone to clue them in about BLS data, they might really still be living in the bubble. But that’s really their choice.

And the point is that with enrollment more or less closed for 2014, there’s not much point in spinning. OK, maybe if you can keep up the pretense all the way to November, you can slightly sway base voters for the midterms. But even that’s doubtful — by the fall, we’re going to have a very clear picture of how things went; and the shape of that picture has already been determined.

I guess that what gets me is the — to use the technical term — wussiness of it all. Isn’t there any space on the right for people who sell themselves as tough-minded, who condemn Obamacare on principle but warn their followers that it’s not on the verge of collapse? Is the whole party so insecure, so unable to handle the truth, that it automatically shoots anyone bearing bad news?

And the answer appears to be yes.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

April 20, 2014

In “Marx Rises Again” The Putz says old ideas are having a comeback in the new Gilded Age.  In “Still Getting Wolf Whistles at 50″ MoDo says Ford repeats a King Kong of a stunt with its iconic Mustang.  In “How to Get a Job at Google, Part 2″ The Moustache of Wisdom says new graduates may be intrigued by a hiring guru’s advice.  In “In Dad’s Hometown, European Souls” Mr. Kristof says in a village in southwest Ukraine, the kids may know how to speak Russian, but they say they’d rather sing to Taylor Swift.  In “Tolstoy and Miss Daisy” Mr. Bruni says on the eve of Easter, his family’s happy journey came into focus.  Here’s The Putz:

In the season of resurrection, it’s fitting that he’s with us once again — bearded, prophetic, moralistic, promising to exalt the humble and cast down the mighty from their thrones.

Yes, that’s right: Karl Marx is back from the dead.

Not on a Soviet-style scale, mercifully, and not with the kind of near-scriptural authority that many Marxists once invested in him. But Marxist ideas are having an intellectual moment, and attention must be paid.

As Timothy Shenk writes in a searching essay for The Nation, there are two pillars to the current Marxist revival. One is the clutch of young intellectuals Shenk dubs the “Millennial Marxists,” whose experience of the financial crisis inspired a new look at Old Karl’s critique of capitalism. The M.M.’s have Occupy Wall Street as a failed-but-interesting political example; they have new-ish journals (Jacobin, The New Inquiry, n + 1) where they can experiment and argue; they are beginning to produce books, two of which Shenk reviews and praises.

What they lack, however, is a synthesis, a story, of the kind that Marx himself offered. This is where the other pillar rises — Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” a sweeping interpretation of modern economic trends recently translated from the French, and the one book this year that everyone in my profession will be required to pretend to have diligently read.

Piketty himself is a social democrat who abjures the Marxist label. But as his title suggests, he is out to rehabilitate and recast one of Marx’s key ideas: that so-called “free markets,” by their nature, tend to enrich the owners of capital at the expense of people who own less of it.

This idea seemed to be disproved in the 20th century, by the emergence of a prosperous, non-revolutionary working class. But Piketty argues that those developments were transitory, made possible mostly by the massive destruction of inherited capital during the long era of world war.

Absent another such disruption, he expects a world in which the returns to capital permanently outstrip  —  as they have recently  —  the returns to labor, and inequality rises far beyond even today’s levels. Combine this trend with slowing growth, and we face a future like the 19th-century past, in which vast inherited fortunes bestride the landscape while the middle class fractures, weakens, shrinks.

Piketty’s dark vision relies, in part, on economic models I am unqualified to assess. But it also relies on straightforward analysis of recent trends in Western economies, and here a little doubt-raising is in order.

In particular, as the Manhattan Institute’s Scott Winship has pointed out, Piketty’s data seems to understate the income gains enjoyed by most Americans over the last two generations. These gains have not been as impressive as during the post-World War II years, but they do exist: For now, even as the rich have gotten much, much richer, the 99 percent have shared in growing prosperity in real, measurable ways.

Winship’s point raises the possibility that even if Piketty’s broad projections are correct, the future he envisions might be much more stable and sustainable than many on the left tend to assume. Even if the income and wealth distributions look more Victorian, that is, the 99 percent may still be doing well enough to be wary of any political movement that seems too radical, too utopian, too inclined to rock the boat.

This possibility might help explain why the far left remains, for now, politically weak even as it enjoys a miniature intellectual renaissance. And it might hint at a reason that so much populist energy, in both the United States and Europe, has come from the right instead — from movements like the Tea Party, Britain’s UKIP, France’s National Front and others that incorporate some Piketty-esque arguments (attacks on crony capitalism; critiques of globalization) but foreground cultural anxieties instead.

The taproot of agitation in 21st-century politics, this trend suggests, may indeed be a Marxian sense of everything solid melting into air. But what’s felt to be evaporating could turn out to be cultural identity — family and faith, sovereignty and community — much more than economic security.

And somewhere in this pattern, perhaps, lies the beginnings of a  more ideologically complicated critique of modern capitalism — one that draws on cultural critics like Daniel Bell and Christopher Lasch rather than just looking to material concerns, and considers the possibility that our system’s greatest problem might not be the fact that it lets the rich claim more money than everyone else. Rather, it might be that both capitalism and the welfare state tend to weaken forms of solidarity that give meaning to life for many people, while offering nothing but money in their place.

Which is to say that while the Marxist revival is interesting enough, to become more relevant it needs to become a little more … reactionary.

Here’s MoDo:

It’s weird to be jealous of your car.

But I am.

Men look at my car with such naked lust, their eyes devouring the curves and chrome, that I often feel as though I’m intruding on an intimate moment. Women like it, too. They sometimes grin and give it a thumbs up as it growls by, and one girlfriend fondly refers to it as “the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Goddess car.”

But the icon evokes a special feeling in men. It’s the Proustian madeleine of cars, stirring old dreams and new. Guys sometimes follow in the American beauty’s dreamy wake, by car or by bike, and leave mash notes on the windshield with their numbers, pleading for me to sell it.

I won’t. Even though it’s hard on the ego to chauffeur such an object of universal desire, and even though I can rarely put down the top because I’m prone to sunburn, I love my ’65 Mustang convertible. Still sexy at 50, it is midnight blue with a white top and white bucket seats. Bob Marley, ’60s French girl groups and, of course, Wilson Pickett wail from the CD player.

The pony car was launched at the New York World’s Fair in 1964 with a $2,368 sticker price, and some collectors look for “1964 1/2s,” as the first Mustangs off the Ford assembly line are called. But the debut cars were all designated 1965, and mine was produced in that first batch.

It quickly became the fastest-selling new car in history, landing on the cover of Time and Newsweek with Lee Iacocca and showing up in the James Bond movie “Goldfinger.” It sold even faster when Ford executives pulled a King Kong of a stunt in October 1965 and parked a pony on the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building.

Once Ford engineers determined that lowering a car by helicopter onto the world’s tallest building would be too dangerous, they spent an hour cutting a white Mustang convertible into sections that would fit into elevators and then reassembled the car on high.

Bill Ford Jr., the company’s executive chairman, great-grandson of Henry Ford and No. 1 Mustang fan, replicated the icon-on-icon caper Wednesday for the first day of the New York Auto Show — this time disassembling a bright yellow 2015 Mustang convertible into five parts and reassembling it 1,000 feet above Fifth Avenue.

Later, after driving through the car show in one of Ford’s 1,964 50th anniversary, retro Mustangs that come in the car’s original Wimbledon white or Kona blue, the chairman reminisced about his first car, a 1975 electric green Mustang. “Mustang is my all-time favorite car,” he said, noting that it signified fun and freedom in an affordable package.

The car was conceived as “a working man’s Thunderbird” by the late Don Frey and muscled up by Carroll Shelby. Frey, an engineer, had been teased by his kids about how boring the Ford models were.

As USA Today recounted, Frey’s favorite story was getting a letter from a Texas janitor who bought one of the first Mustangs. He wrote Frey: “I’ve been courting this 5,000-acre widow for years. I finally got her in my red pony. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Bill Clinton said leaving his bright blue ’67 Mustang behind in Arkansas was the hardest part of moving to the White House.

The brand almost became extinct after it devolved to a smaller version on top of the Ford Pinto chassis in the mid-’70s — losing its cool image. I had a red one in those days, and it broke down so much, I started calling it the Mustake.

The lame pony, USA Today recalled, was rescued in the early ’90s by engineer John Coletti and other Mustang aficionados at Ford, a group called the Gang of Eight. They slaved away in their spare time in an old Montgomery Ward warehouse in Michigan, coming up with a niftier design.

I always think of my Mustang as the Steve McQueen of cars, given the star’s stunning, sometimes airborne 10-minute chase scene in “Bullitt” through the vertiginous streets of San Francisco, driving a green 1968 Mustang GT 390 in pursuit of a black Dodge Charger.

With his Mustang, Jacqueline Bisset and existential angst, McQueen defined hip in the 1968 classic — despite the atrocious paisley print pj’s he wore in the film.

In 2011, Marc Myers wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal retracing the chase route gingerly in a new Mustang with McQueen’s stunt double, Loren Janes. Janes, then 79, said he did about 90 percent of the driving in the movie and McQueen, though a good driver, did only the close-ups.

Janes told Myers that at the end of filming “Bullitt,” McQueen offered him one of the three tricked-out Mustangs used in the movie, but he passed, afraid he would always want to drive it too fast.

“Besides, I already had this,” Janes said, showing Myers a 1964 Rolex Submariner with the inscription: “To the best damn stuntman in the world. Steve.”

Now that’s cool.

Now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

How’s my kid going to get a job? There are few questions I hear more often than that one. In February, I interviewed Laszlo Bock, who is in charge of all hiring at Google — about 100 new hires a week — to try to understand what an employer like Google was looking for and why it was increasingly ready to hire people with no college degrees. Bock’s remarks generated a lot of reader response, particularly his point that prospective bosses today care less about what you know or where you learned it — the Google machine knows everything now — than what value you can create with what you know. With graduations approaching, I went back to Google to ask Bock to share his best advice for job-seekers anywhere, not just at Google. Here is a condensed version of our conversations:

You’re not saying college education is worthless?

“My belief is not that one shouldn’t go to college,” said Bock. It is that among 18- to 22-year-olds — or people returning to school years later — “most don’t put enough thought into why they’re going, and what they want to get out of it.” Of course, we want an informed citizenry, where everyone has a baseline of knowledge from which to build skills. That is a social good. But, he added, don’t just go to college because you think it is the right thing to do and that any bachelor’s degree will suffice. “The first and most important thing is to be explicit and willful in making the decisions about what you want to get out of this investment in your education.” It’s a huge investment of time, effort and money and people should think “incredibly hard about what they’re getting in return.”

Once there, said Bock, make sure that you’re getting out of it not only a broadening of your knowledge but skills that will be valued in today’s workplace. Your college degree is not a proxy anymore for having the skills or traits to do any job.

What are those traits? One is grit, he said. Shuffling through résumés of some of Google’s 100 hires that week, Bock explained: “I was on campus speaking to a student who was a computer science and math double major, who was thinking of shifting to an economics major because the computer science courses were too difficult. I told that student they are much better off being a B student in computer science than an A+ student in English because it signals a rigor in your thinking and a more challenging course load. That student will be one of our interns this summer.”

Or, he added, think of this headline from The Wall Street Journal in 2011: “Students Pick Easier Majors Despite Less Pay.” This was an article about a student who switched from electrical and computer engineering to a major in psychology. She said she just found the former too difficult and would focus instead on a career in public relations and human resources. “I think this student was making a mistake,” said Bock, even if it meant lower grades. “She was moving out of a major where she would have been differentiated in the labor force” and “out of classes that would have made her better qualified for other jobs because of the training.”

This is key for Bock because the first thing Google looks for “is general cognitive ability — the ability to learn things and solve problems,” he said. In that vein, “a knowledge set that will be invaluable is the ability to understand and apply information — so, basic computer science skills. I’m not saying you have to be some terrific coder, but to just understand how [these] things work you have to be able to think in a formal and logical and structured way.” But that kind of thinking doesn’t have to come from a computer science degree. “I took statistics at business school, and it was transformative for my career. Analytical training gives you a skill set that differentiates you from most people in the labor market.”

A lot of work, he added, is no longer tied to location. “So if you want your job tied to where you are, you need to be: A) quite good at it; and B) you need to be very adaptable so that you have a baseline skill set that allows you to be a call center operator today and tomorrow be able to interpret MRI scans. To have built the skill set that allows you to do both things requires a baseline capability that’s analytical.”

Well, what about creativity?

Bock: “Humans are by nature creative beings, but not by nature logical, structured-thinking beings. Those are skills you have to learn. One of the things that makes people more effective is if you can do both. … If you’re great on both attributes, you’ll have a lot more options. If you have just one, that’s fine, too.” But a lot fewer people have this kind of structured thought process and creativity.

Are the liberal arts still important?

They are “phenomenally important,” he said, especially when you combine them with other disciplines. “Ten years ago behavioral economics was rarely referenced. But [then] you apply social science to economics and suddenly there’s this whole new field. I think a lot about how the most interesting things are happening at the intersection of two fields. To pursue that, you need expertise in both fields. You have to understand economics and psychology or statistics and physics [and] bring them together. You need some people who are holistic thinkers and have liberal arts backgrounds and some who are deep functional experts. Building that balance is hard, but that’s where you end up building great societies, great organizations.”

How do you write a good résumé?

“The key,” he said, “is to frame your strengths as: ‘I accomplished X, relative to Y, by doing Z.’ Most people would write a résumé like this: ‘Wrote editorials for The New York Times.’ Better would be to say: ‘Had 50 op-eds published compared to average of 6 by most op-ed [writers] as a result of providing deep insight into the following area for three years.’ Most people don’t put the right content on their résumés.”

What’s your best advice for job interviews?

“What you want to do is say: ‘Here’s the attribute I’m going to demonstrate; here’s the story demonstrating it; here’s how that story demonstrated that attribute.’ ” And here is how it can create value. “Most people in an interview don’t make explicit their thought process behind how or why they did something and, even if they are able to come up with a compelling story, they are unable to explain their thought process.”

For parents, new grads and those too long out of work, I hope some of this helps.

And here’s Mr. Kristof, writing from Karapchiv, Ukraine:

To understand why Ukrainians are risking war with Russia to try to pluck themselves from Moscow’s grip, I came to this village where my father grew up.

The kids here learn English and flirt in low-cut bluejeans. They listen to Rihanna, AC/DC and Taylor Swift. They have crushes on George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, watch “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy,” and play Grand Theft Auto. The school here has computers and an Internet connection, which kids use to watch YouTube and join Facebook. Many expect to get jobs in Italy or Spain — perhaps even America.

“We feel our souls are European,” Margaryta Maminchuk, 16, told me. “That is why we are part of Europe’s future.” The village school, which is in my great-uncle’s old family mansion, invited me to speak to an assembly, and I asked the students how many identified as European. Nearly all raised their hands.

These villagers aren’t “important” and claim no sophisticated understanding of international events. But it’s average Ukrainians like them who are turning this country around, defying President Vladimir Putin of Russia and his military, quite simply, because they dream to the West.

On past visits to this village, which my family fled in the 1940s, it seemed impossibly backward. It was near the Romanian border, a world apart from Kiev, the capital, and even a decade ago many houses lacked electricity and plumbing. Horses did the plowing. Nobody spoke English. If people went abroad it was to Russia.

Yet Ukraine has changed and opened up. Almost everyone now has electricity, plumbing and television, and many young men and women have traveled to Italy to find jobs. There is bewilderment that Poland is now so much richer than Ukraine — and resentment at Moscow for holding Ukrainians back.

I asked Margaryta, the girl with the European soul, whether she could speak Russian. Everyone in the village can speak it, she acknowledged, but she added primly: “I will not speak Russian. I am a patriot.”

Granted, significant numbers of Ukrainians in the eastern part of the country feel deep bonds with Moscow and want more autonomy. In the short term, despite a diplomatic accord reached with Russia and Ukraine that aims to defuse the crisis, President Putin may succeed in dismembering Ukraine. But, in the long run, he is both undermining his own economy and also driving Ukrainians forever into a Western orbit, as surely as the Soviets propelled Czechs to the West when they invaded in 1968.

Even here in the village, Ukrainians watch Russian television and loathe the propaganda portraying them as neo-Nazi thugs rampaging against Russian speakers.

“If you listen to them, we all carry assault rifles; we’re all beating people,” Ilya Moskal, a history teacher, said contemptuously.

For people with such fondness for American culture, there is disappointment that President Obama hasn’t embraced Ukraine more firmly. “The U.S. is being very slow and cautious,” said Anatoly Marinchuk, a retiree, scolding gently. “You should be firmer, and quicker with financial assistance.”

He’s right, I think.

It’s not just Ukrainians who are watching, and Putin himself, but all the world. We don’t have great tools, but we can do more.

As Wesley Clark and Phillip Karber, two American military experts, suggested in a report to the Obama administration, the United States can do a far better job supplying nonlethal assistance to the Ukrainian military, in part to deter Russia. We can make clearer that Russia would face devastating banking sanctions if it invades Ukraine. We can send more officials on visits, and Obama would warm hearts if he found a way to quote the national poet and hero, Taras Shevchenko.

We should take heart from the recognition that backing Ukraine places us on the right side of history. Ukraine has had wretched national leaders, so today leadership is coming from ordinary people who are driven by deep popular aspirations like those reverberating in my family’s ancestral village.

Without moving an inch, this village has been an ever-changing place. When my father was born, it was Austria-Hungary. Throughout his childhood, it was Romania. In the 1940s, it became the Soviet Union. In 1991, it became the Republic of Ukraine.

And, in 2014, by popular will, it is becoming part of the West.

Ukrainians hope to avoid a war with Russia that they know they would lose. But many believe deeply that their futures depend on reorienting their country to the West. That they won’t compromise on.

Ukraine faces difficult times ahead, but tectonic forces are propelling it westward. In the battle between Putin and Taylor Swift, I bet on Swift.

“We love your culture, and we want to be part of you,” one man from Donetsk told me, almost beseechingly. “If you abandon us, we will never forgive you.”

And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

If you were on I-85 near Atlanta on Wednesday morning or I-95 near Baltimore on Thursday afternoon, there’s a chance you spotted them. You’d remember, especially if she was driving when they lumbered by. It’s not often that you see an 18-year-old girl behind the wheel of a gold-colored Cadillac so enormous, so archaic. And it’s not usually a 79-year-old man you find beside her, her lone companion on the long road.

What an odd-looking couple they must have been. But what a sweet affirmation. They were proof, these two, that a family can pass its painstakingly nurtured closeness down through the generations, and that there comes a moment when the values impressed on the youngest members of the brood — the values imposed on them, really — become the values they actually elect.

The 79-year-old is my father. Every year around this time, just before Easter, he migrates north from Georgia, where he spends the cold months, to New York, for the warm ones. He drives, and that makes my three siblings and me increasingly nervous, because he doesn’t have the energy he once did, because we’re worrywarts and because we’re determined to hold on to him for as long as we can.

We were especially concerned this year, when his wife, whom he met and married many years after our mother died, couldn’t join him for the ride. He was going to be piloting that grand and gleaming relic of his all alone.

Over email and phone, my brothers, my sister and I huddled, strategized: Could one of us cancel a few commitments, take two or three days off, figure out a way to tag along with him? Could we persuade him to let that happen?

My niece Leslie, the eldest of his nine grandchildren, caught wind of the conversation and piped up. She’d do it, she said. She’d go. She was in the final weeks of high school and, like most graduating seniors, just biding her time. She had no crucial exams to study for. No more standardized tests to take. And there wasn’t a chance in hell that Grandpa was going to turn her down.

She hopped on a plane from Los Angeles, where my brother Harry and his family live, to Atlanta, where the Cadillac idled. She climbed in and buckled up.

I called to check on her and Dad during the first leg of their two-day, 16-hour trip. He answered. He’d already ceded the driver’s seat, already grown accustomed to being chauffeured.

“You’re a veritable Miss Daisy,” I told him, and he passed the observation along to Leslie. She had no idea what we meant.

He said to me: “My firstborn granddaughter, come all this way to drive me. Can you believe it?”

I can, because he set this up to happen. Leslie is the return on an investment that he made across many decades, with so much of his time and so much of his heart.

He, my mother, my own grandparents and my aunts and uncles always taught my siblings and me to carve out space for family no matter what, to put relatives at the head of the line, to find gestures large and small by which you communicated that you cared and you never left that in doubt.

They methodically infused our get-togethers with a sense of occasion and an even more profound sense of gratitude, advertising and even amplifying their feelings about family as a way of bequeathing them. They wanted the compact that they’d established — the covenant that they’d built — to endure.

Tolstoy wasn’t on the mark. Not all happy families are alike. But all happy families — or, more accurately, all close ones — have this in common: Their bond is forged not by accident but by intent. They make a decision.

And their actions follow their resolve.

When I was growing up, my parents didn’t just take the four of us to see Grandma and Grandpa Bruni. They took us to see Grandma and Grandpa Bruni. The event had emotional italics; it was teased and promoted, like a new “Star Trek” movie.

That was true as well of visits to my aunts and uncles, and these relatives returned our excitement with exuberant welcomes and extravagant meals, sending the message that we were the most cherished creatures on earth. The prosciutto and the pasta and the cannoli had no end. The hugging went on and on.

My siblings and I wanted the same for their children — nine in all, starting with Leslie. This hasn’t been easy to pull off. We’re scattered across the map, so connecting the kids with their grandfather, with one another and with their aunts and uncles has often meant expensive flights, exhausting car rides.

This Easter weekend, my brother Mark and his children will drive nearly five hours each way between the Boston area and Princeton, N.J., for a 24-hour stay. I once flew from Rome to Boston just for a big birthday party for Mark. Everyone does whatever’s necessary for an annual beach week in June when we’re all together. We’re blessed to have the resources for it, and we’re determined that everything else on the calendar yield to it. It’s the priority.

And the kids are subjected to the precise molding and coaching that my siblings and I were. They get the same italics. Uncle Frank is picking a movie for you all to watch. Aunt Adelle is taking you snorkeling. Uncle Mark rented a boat.

And the most glittering promise, the ultimate prize: Grandpa is taking you to dinner.

Grandpa took Leslie to a Waffle House on the first day of their drive and then again on the second. They share, along with genes, an affinity for breakfast foods and carbohydrates.

They don’t share musical tastes, so for most of their trip, they left the radio off and just talked, treating the highway as memory lane. Grandpa told Leslie stories about the woman he still mourns: the grandmother she never got to know, whose first name she inherited. At one point he realized that he had a collection of greatest hits by the Platters with him, and he put it in the CD player, telling Leslie: This was the soundtrack of our romance.

They pulled into his driveway in the suburbs of New York City early Thursday evening, in time to freshen up and head out to a movie together. Afterward I got Leslie on the phone and asked her how it all went. She was still dumbstruck by the heft of Grandpa’s car.

“It’s like a boat,” she said. “It took me a while to realize that if I wanted to stop, I had to start braking really, really far in advance.”

In the background, Grandpa chimed in: “She’s a terrific little driver!”

I asked her about her plans for the next day, and whether she’d have dinner with me in Manhattan and stay over at my place. I was braced for rejection, or a grudging acceptance: An 18-year-old has better ways to spend a Friday night, and she’d surely overdosed on family by this point.

I underestimated her. I underestimated all of us.

“I’m seeing a friend in the city,” she told me, “but I’ll cut it off in time to meet you at the restaurant and spend the night with you,” she told me, sounding genuinely eager.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Totally,” she said. “This is more important.”

Krugman’s blog, 4/18/14

April 19, 2014

There were four posts yesterday.  The first was “On the Liberal Bias of Facts:”

“The facts have a well-known liberal bias,” declared Rob Corddry way back in 2004 — and experience keeps vindicating his joke. But why?

Not long ago Ezra Klein cited research showing that both liberals and conservatives are subject to strong tribal bias — presented with evidence, they see what they want to see. I then wrote that this poses a puzzle, because in practice liberals don’t engage in the kind of mass rejections of evidence that conservatives do. The inevitable response was a torrent of angry responses and claims that liberals do too reject facts — but none of the claims measured up.

Just to be clear: Yes, you can find examples where *some* liberals got off on a hobbyhorse of one kind or another, or where the liberal conventional wisdom turned out wrong. But you don’t see the kind of lockstep rejection of evidence that we see over and over again on the right. Where is the liberal equivalent of the near-uniform conservative rejection of climate science, or the refusal to admit that Obamacare is in fact reaching a lot of previously uninsured Americans?

What I tried to suggest, but maybe didn’t say clearly, is that the most likely answer lies not so much in the character of individual liberals versus that of individual conservatives, as in the difference between the two sides’ goals and institutions. And Jonathan Chait’s recent thoughts on the inherently partisan nature of “data-based” journalism are, I think, helpful in bringing this better into focus.

As Chait says, the big Obamacare comeback and the reaction of the right are a very good illustration of the forces at work.

The basic facts here are that after a very slow start due to the healthcare.gov debacle, almost everything has gone right for reform. A huge surge of enrollments more than made up the initially lost ground; the age mix of enrollees has improved; multiple independent surveys have found a substantial drop in the number of Americans without health insurance.

Opponents of Obamacare could respond to these facts by arguing that the whole thing is nonetheless a bad idea, or they could accept that the rollout has gone OK but call for major changes in the program looking forward. What they’re actually engaged in, however, is mass denial and conspiracy theorizing strongly reminiscent of their reaction to polls showing Mitt Romney on the way to defeat, or for that matter evidence of climate change. Acceptance of the facts is, well, unacceptable.

Nothing illustrated this better than the reaction to Ezra Klein’s own note about the resignation of Kathleen Sebelius, which was intended as analysis rather than advocacy; Klein simply made the fairly obvious point that the HHS secretary was in effect free to resign now because Obamacare has been turned around and is going well. But Klein’s statement was met with a mix of outrage and ridicule on the right; how dare he suggest that the program was succeeding?

Why is it, then, that the right treats statements of fact as proof of liberal bias?

Chait’s answer, which I agree is part of the story, is that the liberal and conservative movements are not at all symmetric in their goals. Conservatives want smaller government as an end in itself; liberals don’t seek bigger government per se — they want government to achieve certain things, which is quite different. You’ll never see liberals boasting about raising the share of government spending in GDP the way conservatives talk proudly about bringing that share down. Because liberals want government to accomplish something, they want to know whether government programs are actually working; because conservatives don’t want the government doing anything except defense and law enforcement, they aren’t really interested in evidence about success or failure. True, they may seize on alleged evidence of failure to reinforce their case, but it’s about political strategy, not genuine interest in the facts.

One side consequence of this great divide, by the way, is the way conservatives project their own style onto their opponents — insisting that climate researchers are just trying to rationalize government intervention, that liberals like trains because they destroy individualism.

But this can’t be the whole story. It doesn’t explain, for example, the rejection of polls in 2012, or the refusal of the right to admit that things weren’t going well in Iraq — both cases in which conservatives really did have an interest in the outcomes. So what else differentiates the two sides?

Well, surely another factor is the lack of a comprehensive liberal media environment comparable to the closed conservative universe. If you lean right, you can swaddle yourself 24/7 in Fox News and talk radio, never hearing anything that disturbs your preconceptions. (If you were getting your “news” from Fox, you were told that the hugely encouraging Rand survey was nothing but bad news for Obamacare.) If you lean left, you might watch MSNBC, but the allegedly liberal network at least tries to make a distinction between news and opinion — and if you watch in the morning, what you get is right-wing conspiracy theorizing more or less indistinguishable from Fox.

Yet another factor may be the different incentives of opinion leaders, which in turn go back to the huge difference in resources. Strange to say, there are more conservative than liberal billionaires, and it shows in think-tank funding. As a result, I like to say that there are three kinds of economists: Liberal professional economists, conservative professional economists, and professional conservative economists. The other box isn’t entirely empty, but there just isn’t enough money on the left to close the hack gap.

Finally, I do believe that there is a difference in temperament between the sides. I know that it doesn’t show up in the experiments done so far, which show liberals and conservatives more or less equally inclined to misread facts in a tribal way. But such experiments may not be enough like real life to capture the true differences — although I’d be the first to admit that I don’t have solid evidence for that claim. I am, after all, a liberal.

Yesterday’s second post was “How Do You Say “Nobody Could Have Predicted” In Swedish?”:

A correspondent points me to the news from Sweden, which has stopped flirting with deflation and moved right in. Here’s inflation excluding food, energy, tobacco, and alcohol:


Eurostat

It’s amazing: Sweden, which at first weathered the crisis fairly well, and faced none of the institutional constraints of the euro area, has managed — completely gratuitously — to get itself into a deflationary trap.

The Riksbank says, in effect, that nobody could have predicted this development. But of course its own former deputy governor — and my former colleague — Lars Svensson, more or less frantically warned that the Riksbank was making a terrible mistake by tightening money despite low inflation and lots of economic slack. His reward was increasing isolation, and eventually departure. You see, all the VSSPs — very serious Swedish people — knew that it was important to raise interest rates because, well, because.

And getting out of the trap is going to be very hard.

I’d like to imagine that people will admit that Lars was right all along, and that in general the urge to purge has been highly destructive. But my guess is that he’ll still be considered unsound — he was prematurely anti-deflationist — and that tight-money advocates will continue to be regarded as reliable, prudent people even as they lead us into long-run stagnation.

The third post yesterday was “Don’t Know Much About History, Rand Paul Edition:”

I can easily understand it when people don’t know the facts about economic statistics; you need a fair bit of background knowledge even to know how to look these things up. It’s more surprising when people don’t know what they don’t know — when they make confident assertions that can be proved false in a few seconds by anyone who does know these things.

I had a one-on-one encounter with Rand Paul over such a case; there our heads were, talking on TV, and he insisted that government employment had risen under Obama. (It has actually plunged.) At the very least, you’d think he would have learned a lesson from the experience.

But no. There he goes, saying

When is the last time in our country we created millions of jobs? It was under Ronald Reagan …

Hmmm:

It’s not just that more jobs were created under Clinton, who raised taxes on the rich, than under Reagan; I wonder how many people know that more jobs were created under Jimmy Carter than under either Bush?

But I guess I really do understand it: according to right-wing theology, The Blessed Reagan’s tax cuts must have created far more jobs than the policies of evil redistributors. And so that’s what must have happened. Hey, Clinton was probably cooking the books.

The last post yesterday was “Friday Not Music: Back to Black:”

For some reason, not feeling very musical today. Instead I’m waiting eagerly for the season 2 premiere of one of the few shows I watch regularly. I think what I love about it is the chemistry of the cast — they interact with each other so well it’s as if they’re all one person. Oh, wait …

It is a wonderful show…

Blow, Nocera and Collins

April 19, 2014

In “Obamacare Bashing or Bust” Mr. Blow says regardless of whether you agree with the Democrats or Republicans on health reform, it could have profound implications on the midterm elections.  Mr. Nocera takes a look at “Greed and the Wright Brothers” and says in the years that followed that famed first flight, their failure as businessmen offers lessons for today.  In “And the Race Is Off” Ms. Collins says Kathleen Sebelius may be saying that she is not going to enter the Kansas race, but she is still adding to this year’s saga of women running for the U.S. Senate.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Thursday, President Obama delivered a compendium of positive news about the Affordable Care Act:

■ Eight million people have signed up for private health insurance.

■ Thirty-five percent of those signing up are under 35 years old.

■ The Congressional Budget Office now estimates that the cost of the law will be $100 billion lower than expected and will significantly shrink the deficit over the next 10 years.

“This thing is working,” the president said. But it rang more as a lamentation than a proclamation. The health care law is a staggering achievement by this president and the Democrats and is likely to be viewed by history as such, but Republican opposition to it has been so vociferous and unrelenting that the president has been hard pressed to find a message that can overcome it.

Republicans repeat the same complaints, regardless of their veracity: Obamacare is bad for the economy and bad for Americans; it’s an unwelcome expansion of government by an overreaching president; it’s failing and will never work.

As Obama said Thursday:

“I find it strange that the Republican position on this law is still stuck in the same place that it has always been.  They still can’t bring themselves to admit that the Affordable Care Act is working.  They said nobody would sign up; they were wrong about that.  They said it would be unaffordable for the country; they were wrong about that.”

He continued:

“I know every American isn’t going to agree with this law, but I think we can agree that it’s well past time to move on as a country. …”

But the president knows well that Republicans have no interest whatsoever in moving on. They’ve hitched their wagons to stop-Obama stallions and their plan is to race forward to Election Day.

The president smartly articulated the frustration that much of the opposition to the law in public opinion polls is “attached to general opinions about me or about Democrats and partisanship in the country generally.”

The president’s poll numbers took a hit during the health care rollout and have never fully recovered. The law also caused Democrats in general to lose their advantage in voters’ preference for control of Congress, according to a CNN/ORC poll conducted in December. Furthermore, most Americans disapprove of the health care law.

The Republican plan is simply to hold tight to last year’s disapproval and drag it forward to this year’s election. And that just might work. Democrats have so fumbled the selling of the health care law’s advantages, both moral and economic — faltering and stammering when they should have been steadfast and resolute — that they have acquiesced the debate to Republican opposition.

Rather than fight back with facts, too many Democratic politicians tucked their tails and ran away from the law, or, worse yet, joined the attack.

In addition to the effectiveness of Republican attacks and the anemia of Democratic support for the law, the demographics of midterm voters also bode well for Republicans.

Midterm elections generally skew older and whiter, and Republicans are counting on this skew to give them an electoral advantage. According to a Washington Post/ABC poll released at the end of last month, whites and elderly people are the least likely to support federal changes to the health care system, yet most elderly people are beneficiaries of another, quite successful government health care program: Medicare. And 77 percent of Medicare beneficiaries are white.

Even if Obamacare were not a factor, history suggests that this midterm election would still be a tough one for Democrats. As The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza pointed out in February:

“The party of a re-elected president tends to get walloped in the following midterm election. Since 1912 (that’s when the House expanded to 435 seats), the president’s party has lost an average of 29 House seats in the following midterm election.”

The health care law is working, insuring millions of Americans at far less a cost than what was previously estimated. But this civic victory may well contribute to a political defeat in November, unless Democrats can upend historical precedent and change the profile of the people who vote in off-year elections.

Our elections have been severely altered by a corporatist Supreme Court, maleficent voter ID laws and gerrymandering run amok. In the face of it all, can Democrats gather the gumption to say, “Enough”?

Next up we have Mr. Nocera:

Lawrence Goldstone’s new book, “Birdmen,” is about the origins of the airplane, from the early experiments with gliders in the 1890s, to the famous first powered flight by the Wright brothers in December 1903, to the wild next decade — a decade of daring by the early pilots eager to show off both their airplanes and their skill. A good part of the story Goldstone tells is about the rise of airshow exhibitions that swept America — exhibitions in which flamboyant pilots performed death-defying stunts before tens of thousands of spectators. Although, as the author points out, many of those pilots did not, in the end, defy death. On the contrary, death is a constant theme of the early years of flight.

“Birdmen” has a second narrative as well. It tells the story of three entrepreneurs: Wilbur and Orville Wright, on the one hand, and Glenn Curtiss, who quickly became their fiercest business rival, on the other. The Wright brothers had every advantage. Not only were they first, but their renown allowed them to form a well-capitalized company, with a distinguished board or directors, that aimed to take full advantage of their early patents, while selling airplanes to people we would now call early adopters. Yet as an innovator — indeed, as a businessman — Curtiss ran rings around the Wrights. Well before Orville Wright exited the business in 1915 — his brother had died of typhoid fever three years earlier — Curtiss was producing clearly superior airplanes.

The Wright brothers’ critical insight was the importance of “lateral stability” — that is, wingtip-to-wingtip stability — to flight. And their great innovation was something they called “wing warping,” in which they used a series of pulleys that caused the wingtips on one side of the airplane to go up when the wingtips on the other side were pulled down. That allowed the Wrights’ airplane to make banked turns and to correct itself when it flew into a gust of wind.

But when the Wrights applied for a patent, they didn’t seek one that just covered wing warping; their patent covered any means to achieve lateral stability. There is no question what the Wrights sought: nothing less than a monopoly on the airplane business — every airplane ever manufactured, they believed, owed them a royalty. As Wilbur Wright, who was both the more domineering and the more inventive of the two brothers, put it in a letter: “It is our view that morally the world owes its almost universal system of lateral control entirely to us. It is also our opinion that legally it owes it to us.”

What was Curtiss doing in the meantime? In addition to coming up with the idea of adding wheels for easier takeoffs and landings, he invented an entirely different system for dealing with lateral stability, a system of flaps that went up and down and controlled the wings. (Airplane manufacturers today still use that basic insight.) The Wrights responded by filing a lawsuit, claiming that Curtiss was violating their patents. The litigation would consume them literally until the day Wilbur Wright died.

Indeed, so caught up in the litigation did Wilbur Wright become that he simply stopped innovating. The board of his company made it clear that it wanted him to get back to the business of making better airplanes. But he just couldn’t. Meanwhile, the Wright Company had trouble holding onto professional managers because the Wrights — Wilbur especially — treated them so poorly. They woefully underpaid the pilots who flew for them in exhibitions, hoarding most of the money for themselves. Quite simply, the Wright brothers were greedy. And it ultimately hurt both them and America’s new airplane industry.

As it turns out, the Wright brothers won their lawsuit against Curtiss. But instead of accepting that judgment, Curtiss kept innovating, forcing Orville Wright back into court to stop him. What finally ended the patent wars was World War I; the government insisted that airplane manufacturers cross-license their patents so that the industry could move forward without the impediment of litigation. Yet, Goldstone adds, “the battle between the Wrights and Curtiss had taken a toll”: no American airplane was viewed as good enough to go into combat.

“By attempting to neuter Curtiss,” Goldstone writes, “the Wrights stifled the development of American aviation.”

He adds: “That is, of course, the irony of the patent system. Without patent protection, a competitor can simply replicate an invention and undercut the inventor’s price — which necessarily includes all the time and expense of research and development — so the incentive to experiment and create is severely inhibited. But if innovators such as Glenn Curtiss cannot build on the progress of others without paying exorbitantly for the privilege, the incentive to continue to experiment and create is similarly inhibited.”

Thus, in the story of the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss, is a lesson for our age as well.

And last but not least we have Ms. Collins:

Maybe Kathleen Sebelius should reconsider that Senate thing.

The woman who gave us the Obamacare rollout says she is not going to go home to Kansas and take on Senator Pat Roberts. Even though Roberts is a former friend who threw her under the bus because he’s afraid of a challenge from a loopy Tea Party radiologist.

Actually, she didn’t say all that. What she said, through a spokeswoman, was: “Secretary Sebelius is continuing her important work at H.H.S. and is not considering a run for the Senate.”

Some Democrats had told The Times’s Jeremy Peters that they wanted to see her give the race a try. At first, the idea seemed a little otherworldly, what with the way the health care website opened with a crash and all.

Still, we live in an age of hope. Fox says it has a new variation on “The Bachelor” in which 12 American women believe they are competing for the hand of England’s Prince Harry. If you can swallow that, you can certainly have faith that any secretary of health and human services can grow up to be the United States senator from Kansas.

The Democrats have found it difficult to recruit a high-profile candidate to run in Kansas. The state hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since George McGill, who filled the seat after Charles Curtis resigned to become vice president under Herbert Hoover. Curtis, by the way, was the first member of Congress descended from American Indians. He led the floor fight for women’s suffrage and brought the Equal Rights Amendment up before the Senate for the first time. Also, he was a former jockey. I think I speak for us all when I say that Charles Curtis deserves more attention.

But about Kathleen Sebelius. Running a hopeless race for the Senate would be better than, say, spending the next year working on a memoir entitled “It Wasn’t Really My Fault.” And we have to keep stressing that, despite its awful start, the Affordable Care Act is working out fine. You could argue that Sebelius is a competent public servant who just ran into a really bad patch. Like Charles Curtis and the Herbert Hoover era.

Plus, she would have been an interesting addition to this year’s saga of women running for the U.S. Senate. Which is already turning into a thrill a minute. Just consider New Hampshire, where the incumbent, Jeanne Shaheen, is being challenged by Scott Brown, the former Massachusetts senator whose entire political career has involved running for the Senate against Democratic women. To qualify for this race, Brown moved into his New Hampshire vacation home. If he loses, I am thinking his next stop will be a California trailer park and Barbara Boxer.

The Kansas race wouldn’t have been in that fun-filled category. But you could understand the Democrats feeling as if there might be a little window of opportunity. The incumbent, Pat Roberts, is facing any establishment Republican’s worst nightmare: a Tea Party primary challenger, plus the lack of a home in his home state.

Earlier this year, Roberts acknowledged to The Times’s Jonathan Martin that the place in Dodge City that he claims as his voting address is actually a house on a country club golf course that belongs to two longtime supporters. “I have full access to the recliner,” he joked. The part about this that’s really troubling is that Roberts picked a pretend address at a country club. If a politician is going to make believe he lives somewhere, shouldn’t he go for a cottage in the country or a midpriced condo near the shopping center?

Roberts was also stressed by a Tea Party challenge from Milton Wolf, a radiologist who, strangely enough, is a very distant cousin of President Obama. Wolf has compared the Affordable Care Act to “Stalin’s iron-fisted gulags.” Roberts, racing to the right in terror, demanded Sebelius’s resignation for “gross incompetence.” Obamacare haranguing is certainly standard fare under these circumstances, but you can see why Sebelius took it badly. Roberts, after all, was an old family friend who had bragged about their “special relationship” after she was nominated for secretary.

And it wasn’t even necessary. A Kansas reporter discovered that Wolf had a habit of posting X-rays of his patients on his Facebook page, and making fun of their injuries. So far, the radiologist’s most compelling excuse appears to be that he was trying “to educate people about what happens.” This is the kind of threat from the right that a Republican incumbent should be able to survive without turning a sweat, let alone turning on an old pal.

“It isn’t personal,” said Roberts after he’d called for Sebelius’s resignation. Well, sort of.

So there you are. If Kathleen Sebelius had traded the cabinet for the campaign trail, she very probably would have been defeated. But it still might have been fun to spend the summer discussing that recliner at the country club.

Krugman’s blog, 4/17/14

April 18, 2014

There was one post yesterday, “What Eight Million Means:”

Sorry about blog silence — real life intruded, plus I did have to write a column. But I shouldn’t let the day pass without mentioning the latest big Obamacare news. Final enrollment for 2014, we now know, will be more than 8 million. The age mix has also improved, with more young people signing up at the end; as Jonathan Cohn points out in the linked article, the age mix in Obamacare’s first year is now just about identical to the age mix in Romneycare’s first year. Goodbye, death spiral.

How did enrollment manage to surge so impressively despite the initial debacle of healthcare.gov? Obviously they fixed the website; but the broader issue, as Sarah Kliff rightly points out, is that being uninsured is truly terrible. Uninsured Americans really, really wanted coverage, and they weren’t ready to give up.

Kliff doesn’t make this point too explicitly, but this diagnosis has another crucial implication: the benefits of Obamacare, for all its imperfections, are immense. Millions of people who lived extremely anxious lives now have far more security than before. Compared with those benefits, the complaints of some already insured people that they have less choice of doctors than before, or that they’re no longer allowed to retain minimalist plans, look like whining. (And of course not one of the more serious-sounding stories about soaring premiums and all that has held up under scrutiny.)

And speaking of whining, the GOP response seems to be to make every possible insinuation to the effect that the numbers are somehow fraudulent. I actually don’t think there’s a game plan here; their whole position was premised on the inevitable collapse of health reform, and they have no plan B.

All around, as Cohn says, a very good day for reform.

Brooks and Krugman

April 18, 2014

Oh, gawd…  Bobo’s heard about Common Core.  In “When the Circus Descends” he gurgles that right-wing talk radio hosts and left-wing interest groups are teaming up to defeat the most sensible school reform movement in a decade.  “Gemli” from Boston has this to say in his comment:  “Brooks has learned a thing or two about using the false equivalence to manipulate the discourse. He says that conservatives don’t like the Common Core and liberals don’t like it either. These two opposing sides represent the universe of views on the subject, but they cancel each other out, leaving his opinion shining like a cow pie in the moonlight.”  Love that image…  In “Salvation Gets Cheap” Prof. Krugman says the incredible recent decline in the cost of renewable energy, solar power in particular, have improved the economics of climate change.  Here’s Bobo:

We are pretty familiar with this story: A perfectly sensible if slightly boring idea is walking down the street. Suddenly, the ideological circus descends, burying the sensible idea in hysterical claims and fevered accusations. The idea’s political backers beat a craven retreat. The idea dies.

This is what seems to be happening to the Common Core education standards, which are being attacked on the right because they are common and on the left because they are core.

About seven years ago, it was widely acknowledged that state education standards were a complete mess. Huge numbers of students were graduating from high school unprepared either for college work or modern employment. A student who was rated “proficient” in one state would be rated “below basic” in another. About 14 states had pretty good standards, according to studies at the time, but the rest had standards that were verbose, lax or wildly confusing.

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers set out to draft clearer, consistent and more rigorous standards. Remember, school standards are not curricula. They do not determine what students read or how teachers should teach. They are the goals for what students should know at the end of each grade.

This was a state-led effort, supported by employers and financed by private foundations. This was not a federal effort, though the Obama administration did encourage states to embrace the new standards.

These Common Core standards are at least partially in place in 45 states. As is usual, the initial implementation has been a bit bumpy. It’s going to take a few years before there are textbooks and tests that are truly aligned with the new standards.

But the new initiative is clearly superior to the old mess. The math standards are more in line with the standards found in the top performing math nations. The English standards encourage reading comprehension. Whereas the old standards frequently encouraged students to read a book and then go off and write a response to it, the new standards encourage them to go back to the text and pick out specific passages for study and as evidence.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which has been evaluating state standards for more than 15 years, concluded that the Common Core standards are “clearly superior” to the old standards in 37 states and are “too close to call” in 11 more.

But this makes no difference when the circus comes to town.

On the right, the market-share-obsessed talk-radio crowd claims that the Common Core standards represent a federal takeover of the schools. This is clearly false. This was a state-led effort, and localities preserve their control over what exactly is taught and how it is taught. Glenn Beck claims that Common Core represents “leftist indoctrination” of the young. On Fox, Elisabeth Hasselbeck cited a curriculum item that supposedly taught students that Abraham Lincoln’s religion was “liberal.” But, as the education analyst Michael J. Petrilli quickly demonstrated, this was some locally generated curriculum that was one of hundreds on a lesson-sharing website and it was promulgated a year before the Common Core standards even existed.

As it’s being attacked by the talk-radio right, the Common Core is being attacked by the interest group left. The general critique from progressives, and increasingly from teachers’ unions, is that the standards are too difficult, that implementation is shambolic and teachers are being forced into some top-down straitjacket that they detest.

It is true that the new standards are more rigorous than the old, and that in some cases students have to perform certain math skills a year earlier than they formerly had to learn them. But that is a feature, not a bug. The point is to get students competitive with their international peers.

The idea that the Common Core is unpopular is also false. Teachers and local authorities still have control of what they teach and how they teach it. A large survey in Kentucky revealed that 77 percent of teachers are enthusiastic about the challenge of implementing the standards in their classrooms. In another survey, a majority of teachers in Tennessee believe that implementation of the standards has begun positively. Al Baker of The Times interviewed a range of teachers in New York and reported, “most said their students were doing higher-quality work than they had ever seen, and were talking aloud more often.”

The new standards won’t revolutionize education. It’s not enough to set goals; you have to figure out how to meet them. But they are a step forward. Yet now states from New York to Oklahoma are thinking of rolling them back. This has less to do with substance and more to do with talk-radio bombast and interest group resistance to change.

The circus has come to town.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which pools the efforts of scientists around the globe, has begun releasing draft chapters from its latest assessment, and, for the most part, the reading is as grim as you might expect. We are still on the road to catastrophe without major policy changes.

But there is one piece of the assessment that is surprisingly, if conditionally, upbeat: Its take on the economics of mitigation. Even as the report calls for drastic action to limit emissions of greenhouse gases, it asserts that the economic impact of such drastic action would be surprisingly small. In fact, even under the most ambitious goals the assessment considers, the estimated reduction in economic growth would basically amount to a rounding error, around 0.06 percent per year.

What’s behind this economic optimism? To a large extent, it reflects a technological revolution many people don’t know about, the incredible recent decline in the cost of renewable energy, solar power in particular.

Before I get to that revolution, however, let’s talk for a minute about the overall relationship between economic growth and the environment.

Other things equal, more G.D.P. tends to mean more pollution. What transformed China into the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases? Explosive economic growth. But other things don’t have to be equal. There’s no necessary one-to-one relationship between growth and pollution.

People on both the left and the right often fail to understand this point. (I hate it when pundits try to make every issue into a case of “both sides are wrong,” but, in this case, it happens to be true.) On the left, you sometimes find environmentalists asserting that to save the planet we must give up on the idea of an ever-growing economy; on the right, you often find assertions that any attempt to limit pollution will have devastating impacts on growth. But there’s no reason we can’t become richer while reducing our impact on the environment.

Let me add that free-market advocates seem to experience a peculiar loss of faith whenever the subject of the environment comes up. They normally trumpet their belief that the magic of the market can surmount all obstacles — that the private sector’s flexibility and talent for innovation can easily cope with limiting factors like scarcity of land or minerals. But suggest the possibility of market-friendly environmental measures, like a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, and they suddenly assert that the private sector would be unable to cope, that the costs would be immense. Funny how that works.

The sensible position on the economics of climate change has always been that it’s like the economics of everything else — that if we give corporations and individuals an incentive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they will respond. What form would that response take? Until a few years ago, the best guess was that it would proceed on many fronts, involving everything from better insulation and more fuel-efficient cars to increased use of nuclear power.

One front many people didn’t take too seriously, however, was renewable energy. Sure, cap-and-trade might make more room for wind and the sun, but how important could such sources really end up being? And I have to admit that I shared that skepticism. If truth be told, I thought of the idea that wind and sun could be major players as hippie-dippy wishful thinking.

But I was wrong.

The climate change panel, in its usual deadpan prose, notes that “many RE [renewable energy] technologies have demonstrated substantial performance improvements and cost reductions” since it released its last assessment, back in 2007. The Department of Energy is willing to display a bit more open enthusiasm; it titled a report on clean energy released last year “Revolution Now.” That sounds like hyperbole, but you realize that it isn’t when you learn that the price of solar panels has fallen more than 75 percent just since 2008.

Thanks to this technological leap forward, the climate panel can talk about “decarbonizing” electricity generation as a realistic goal — and since coal-fired power plants are a very large part of the climate problem, that’s a big part of the solution right there.

It’s even possible that decarbonizing will take place without special encouragement, but we can’t and shouldn’t count on that. The point, instead, is that drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are now within fairly easy reach.

So is the climate threat solved? Well, it should be. The science is solid; the technology is there; the economics look far more favorable than anyone expected. All that stands in the way of saving the planet is a combination of ignorance, prejudice and vested interests. What could go wrong? Oh, wait.


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